WHEN Narendra Modi sat in the wilderness of American political opinion, sections of the NRI community came to his defence. Graphic human rights reports on the pogrom in Gujarat had turned the US State Department against Modi. He was denied a visa to enter the United States. It did not help Modi that there was clear evidence of discrimination against Christians in Gujarat, most notably in the Dangs region where Modi’s allies used violence against Christian missionaries. This did not sit well with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. As recently as 2008, the chair of the Commission – Felice D Gaer, who was appointed by President George W Bush – had strong words to say about Modi. ‘Narendra Modi is culpable for the egregious and systematic human rights abuses wrought against thousands of India’s Muslims’, Gaer said. ‘Mr. Modi must demonstrate to the State Department and to the American people why he – as a person found to have aided and abetted gross violations of human rights, including religious freedom – should now be eligible for a tourist visa’. Small, but vocal pockets of NRIs had campaigned against this denial.
One of the leaders of this section was Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, a Chicago-based businessman who manufactures electronic goods, who is equally enamoured of Modi and Ronald Reagan. Kumar raised money from amongst his friends and began to finance Republican candidates for various offices. His Indian Americans for Freedom courted Modi and lobbied in the halls of Congress for the reversal of the visa ban. Troupes of Republican members of Congress came to India with Kumar to meet Modi and Modi himself appeared via video uplink to address Kumar’s gatherings in the United States. When Modi became prime minister, the visa denial was set aside by the US State Department. Kumar did not succeed. Modi won his visa by himself. But nonetheless, Kumar’s role was not to be forgotten.
In the United States, Kumar sought to encourage the cult of Modi within the Indian American population. He was eager to use Modimania to draw Indian Americans into the Republican Party, the natural ally of the BJP. In 2014, he began an active project with the National Republican Congressional Committee to harness Indian Americans for public office. His work earned him the top spot at the Indian American Advisory Council for the House Republican Conference. When Donald Trump ran for office, Kumar hastily endorsed him and created the Republican Hindu Coalition. Kumar donated large sums of money (almost $1 million) to the Trump campaign and became one of his surrogates, hastily trying to rebrand Trump as anything but a racist. Just before the election, Kumar told The Hill, ‘a lot of people think that Trump is somewhat of a racist. His partnership with the Republican Hindu Coalition will set that aside’.
Kumar, like Trump’s Lebanese surrogate Walid Phares and Pakistani surrogate Sajid Tarar, provided a brown face for Trump’s antipathy to Islam. ‘Mosques should be monitored completely’, Kumar said, ‘vetting should be taking place’. ‘I am totally for profiling’, he said in reference to the State making judgments based on how people look. ‘If you need to profile, what is the fuss?’ Kumar was in favour of the executive order known as the ‘Muslim Ban’, which halted refugees, migrants and tourists who hailed from several Muslim-majority countries.
Indian Americans did not follow Kumar to the polls. An overwhelming majority voted for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Health care, respect for science, belief in women’s reproductive rights, and a fear of the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Republican party drives this voting pattern amongst Indian Americans. Even if people gathered in large rallies to welcome Modi to the United States, these same people – as I found in conversation with them at the New York rally in the summer of 2016 – favoured Clinton.
ANTI-IMMIGRANT HATE CRIMES
Hate crimes against Indian Americans have risen since the election of Donald Trump. Spectacular deaths in Kansas (of Srinivas Kuchibhotla) and in South Carolina (of Harnish Patel) sent shock waves through the community. Other shootings have not – thankfully – resulted in deaths. There are two features that unite these attacks, as well as others that have not resulted in deaths. First, that the assailants have yelled versions of ‘go back to your country’, a sensibility that festers in the US anti-immigrant movement which has been fanned along by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric against Mexicans and others who he says take away jobs from ‘Americans’. Second, that the assailants who killed or attacked the Indian Americans thought they were attacking ‘terrorists’ – Iranians and Arabs in particular. This ‘accidental’ killing is not at all accidental. It is the outcome of a racist illusion that people with brown skin are terrorists or job thieves who must be intimidated into leaving the United States. These are emotions that have been enflamed by the Trump movement.
Neither Modi nor Kumar has condemned the attacks, nor have they made the necessary link between the Trump rhetoric and these dangerous events. Instead, Kumar called a press conference on another matter. Trump, inspired by his advisor Steve Bannon, has suggested that he would put a halt to the H-1B programme that allows high-tech engineers and other professionals to enter the United States. This was part of his campaign rhetoric and his policy agenda. It draws from a great deal of resentment amongst unemployed white collar workers in the United States who see their livelihoods decline, while Silicon Valley and its offshoots import high-tech workers from Asia. Groups like Save American IT Jobs in Ohio reflect this resentment. Kumar, who has been largely silent on the attacks on the Indian Americans, felt the need to address the H-1B visa issue. ‘There will be a need of more H-1B visa’, Kumar said at a recent press conference. ‘The number of people on H-1B from India is certainly going to increase’. ‘I visualise need of more IT workers in the US’, he said and these would be imported from India.
Trump, it is said by his aides, is considering an executive order to slow down the provision of the H-1B visa. He is under pressure from Silicon Valley tycoons – and people like electronics magnate Kumar – to not sign such an order. They rely upon the lower paid imported high-tech workers. They have threatened to move to Canada if Trump makes this move. Bodyshopping firms in India – such as Tata Consultancy Services – have seen weakness in their stock position as a result of these rumours. Considerable portion of their money is made from sending these workers to the US. Talk of the siphoning of jobs to H-1B workers allows the resentment of parts of the population to fester. ‘Go back to your country’, is the chant. It is rooted in these debates around jobs and immigration, both of which have been so central to Trump’s rhetoric.
Kumar, Modi and Trump share a world-view about Islam and about borders. But what Kumar – at least – does not acknowledge is, to the racist there is no distinction between a man such as him – born in Ambala to Hindu parents – and Osama Bin Laden – the Saudi magnate turned terrorist leader or El Chapo Guzman – the Mexican drug lord. Distinctions are not made when political discourse is deeply charged and inflamed. It is easier to pretend that these attacks are the work of deranged madmen than to acknowledge that the political forces unleashed by Donald Trump – just as by Narendra Modi – result in toxic social outcomes.